Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

The Super Bowl and Your Investments

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Lombardi Trophy - Super Bowl XXXI

Update, with the Patriots’ win yesterday the indicator says the markets should have a down year in 2019. As I mention below, the indicator has been wrong for three years running, as investors let’s hope for a fourth year.

It’s Super Bowl time and once again my beloved Packers are not playing for the for the eighth consecutive year. They had a horrible season and lost or tied a number of games they could have (and should have) won. The good news is that I was able to attend three regular season games at football’s holy shrine, Lambeau Field and a fourth at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Every year the Super Bowl Indicator is resurrected as a forecasting tool for the stock market.

The indicator says that a win by a team from the old pre-merger NFL is bullish for the stock market, while a win by a team from the old AFL is a bad sign for the markets. Looking at this year’s game, New England is an original AFL team while Los Angeles is an original NFL team.

How has the Super Bowl Indicator done?

In 2018 this indicator failed to predict the direction of the stock market for the third year in row. Denver won the 2016 game and the market had an up year. The Patriots won the 2017 game and it was a stellar year for the markets. The Eagles won last year and 2018 was the first down year for the S&P 500 since 2008. Overall the indicator has held true for 40 of the 52 prior Super Bowls.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article before the 2016 game, respected Wall Street analyst Robert Stoval said, “There is no intellectual backing for this sort of thing, except that it works.”

Some notable misses for the indicator include:

  • St. Louis (an old NFL team that was formerly and is now again currently the L.A. Rams) won in 2000 and the market dropped.
  • Baltimore (an old NFL team that was formerly the original Cleveland Browns) won in 2001 and the market dropped. Perhaps the markets were confused since the Browns became an AFC team (along with the Steelers and the Colts) as part of the 1970 merger.
  • The New York Giants (an old NFL team) won in 2008 and the market tanked in what was the start of the recent financial crisis.
  • In 1970 the Kansas City Chiefs shocked the Minnesota Vikings and the Dow Jones Average ended the year up, by less than 5 percent.

Is this a valid investment strategy?

As far as your investments, I think you’ll agree that the outcome of the game should not dictate your strategy. Rather I suggest an investment strategy that incorporates some basic blocking and tackling:

  • financial plan should be the basis of your strategy. Any investment strategy that does not incorporate your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance is flawed.
  • Take stock of where you are. What impact has the bull market of the past ten years had on your portfolio? Perhaps it’s time to rebalance and to rethink your ongoing asset allocation.
  • Costs matter.  Low cost index mutual funds and ETFs can be great core holdings. Solid, well-managed active funds can also contribute to a well-diversified portfolio. In all cases make sure you are in the lowest cost share classes available to you.

View all accounts as part of a total portfolio. This means IRAs, your 401(k), taxable accounts, mutual funds, individual stocks and bonds, etc. Each individual holding should serve a purpose in terms of your overall strategy.

The Super Bowl Indicator is another fun piece of Super Bowl hype. Your investment strategy should be guided by your goals, your time horizon for the money and your tolerance for risk, not the outcome of a football game.

Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Concerned about stock market volatility? Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Will my Social Security be Taxed?

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Contrary to what some politicians might say, your Social Security benefits are not an entitlement. You’ve paid Social Security taxes over the course of your working life and you’ve earned these benefits.

Many retirees and others collecting Social Security wonder about the tax treatment of their benefit. The answer to the question in the title is that your Social Security benefits may be subject to taxes.

How do taxes on Social Security work? 

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), about 40% of the people who receive Social Security pay federal taxes on their benefits.

The formula for the taxation of benefits works as follows:

For those who file as single:

  • If your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.
  • If your combined income is over $34,000, up to 85% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.

For those who file a joint return:

  • If your combined income is between $32,000 and $44,000, up to 50% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.
  • If your combined income is over $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.

According to the SSA, if you are married but file as single your benefit will likely be subject to taxes.

Source: Social Security Administration

What is combined income?

SSA defines your combined income as:

Your adjusted gross income (from your tax return) 

+ non-taxable interest (from a municipal bond fund for example) 

+ one-half of your Social Security Benefit

For example, if your situation looked like this:

  • Adjusted gross income $60,000
  • Non-taxable interest income of $1,500
  • Social Security benefit of $35,000

Your combined income would be: $60,000 + $1,500 + $17,500 (1/2 of your Social Security benefit) or $79,000. Whether single or married filing jointly, $29,750 (85%) of your Social Security benefit would be subject to taxes.

What this means is that $29,750 would be considered as taxable income along with the rest of the taxable income you earned in that year, this amount would be part of the calculation of your overall tax liability.

Is my Social Security subject to taxes once I reach my full retirement age? 

Your full retirement age (FRA) is a key number for many aspects of Social Security. For those born prior to 1960 your FRA is 66, it is 67 for those born in 1960 or after it is 67. For example, there is no reduction in your Social Security benefit for earned income once you reach your FRA. 

As far as the taxation of your Social Security benefit, age doesn’t play a role. Your benefit will potentially be subject to taxes based on your combined income, regardless of your age. Taxes can be paid via quarterly payments or you can have taxes withheld from your Social Security benefit payments. You will receive a Social Security Benefit Statement or form SSA-1099 each January listing your benefits for the prior year. This is similar to a 1099 form that you might receive for services rendered to a client if you are self-employed.

Related to this, if you are working into retirement your wages or self-employment income are subject to FICA and Medicare taxes regardless of your age.

Is Social Security subject to state income taxes? 

Thirteen states currently tax Social Security benefits. These states are:

  1. Colorado
  2. Connecticut
  3. Kansas
  4. Minnesota
  5. Missouri
  6. Montana
  7. Nebraska
  8. New Mexico
  9. North Dakota
  10. Rhode Island
  11. Utah
  12. Vermont
  13. West Virginia

The rate and method of taxing your benefits will vary by state, if you live in one of these states check with your state’s taxing authority or a knowledgeable tax professional for the details.

The Bottom Line 

Social Security represents a significant portion of retirement income for many Americans. Its important to understand how Social Security works, including any tax implications. This is part of the bigger picture of taxes in retirement. Its important for retirees to understand how taxes will impact their retirement finances and to include this in their retirement financial planning.

Note the information above is a review of the basics of how Social Security benefits are taxed and should not be considered to be advice. Your situation may differ. You should consult with the Social Security Administration, or a tax or financial advisor who is well-versed on Social Security regarding your specific situation.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Why Should I Care if My Financial Advisor is a Fiduciary?

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House Financial Services committee members sit...

The Department of Labor released its final draft of their fiduciary rules mandating that financial advisors place their client’s best interests first when offering advice on their retirement accounts in 2016. Here is a post I wrote just before the release. DOL Fiduciary Rules – What Do They Mean For You?

The rules were slated to be fully implementated on January 1, 2018, but the Trump administration’s opposition to these rules scuttled this. The current state of things in the financial advisory world is mixed, as some brokerage firms had gone partially down the path of implementation.

At the end of the day, however, why should you as an investor care if your financial advisor is a fiduciary? Here are some thoughts on this for those looking for a financial advisor or who are already working with one.

Definition of a Fiduciary

fi•du•ci•ar•yA financial advisor held to a Fiduciary Standard occupies a position of special trust and confidence when working with a client. As a Fiduciary, the financial advisor is required to act with undivided loyalty to the client. This includes disclosure of how the financial advisor is to be compensated and any corresponding conflicts of interest.

This is the definition of Fiduciary used by NAPFA (National Association of Personal Financial Advisors) the largest professional organization of fee-only financial advisors in the United States.

Why should you care if your financial advisor is a fiduciary?

Stock brokers are regulated by FINRA, who required them to make recommendations that are suitable for their clients. I’ve never come across a good definition of what suitable really means. Here is one definition I did find several years ago on the website of Clausen Miller a law firm with offices in major U.S. and international cities:

The suitability rule provides that when a financial representative recommends to an investor the purchase, sale or exchange of any security, a financial representative shall have reasonable grounds for believing that the recommendation is suitable for such investor upon the basis of the facts, if any, disclosed by such investor as to his or her other security holdings and as to his or her financial situation and needs.

This really doesn’t specify anything about loyalty to the client, disclosure or anything else. The word reasonable is quite vague at best.

This brings me to the reason that clients should care if their financial advisor is a fiduciary. As a client I would want to know that my financial advisor is acting with my best interests at heart, that he or she is making recommendations to me that are in my best interest. In fact, as you receive disclosures telling you that your broker, financial advisor or registered rep is now a fiduciary acting in your best interests a logical question is, “Weren’t you doing this in the past?”

Several years ago Charles Schwab ran an ad depicting a brokerage office pushing the stock of the day and used the phrase “…let’s put lipstick on this pig…” While humorous (and perhaps exaggerated) I fear that it did reflect the mentality of many product-pushing sales people calling themselves financial advisors.

Many investors don’t understand

The worst part is that most of the investing public doesn’t really understand all of this. Many financial advisors who are subject to the suitability rules are competent and concerned with the welfare of their clients. They make recommendations that are in line with the best interests of their clients. Unfortunately, there are others who don’t and are not required to under the vagaries of the suitability rules.

While the new fiduciary rules were largely scuttled, the investing public can and should look for advisors who act in their client’s best interests. Pay attention to any and all disclosures that you might receive from your financial advisor. Ask questions and don’t settle for half-baked answers. Ask your advisor outright if they are a fiduciary and if they act in their client’s best interests. Ask about any potential conflicts of interest they may have in rendering advice to you. Ask them about all sources of compensation from their relationship with you. It’s important that as a client you fully understand all of this. There is no one right or wrong answer, ultimately that is for you to decide as a client or prospective client.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Concerned about stock market volatility? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2018

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I hope that 2018 was a good year for you and your families and that you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. For us it was great to have our three adult children home and to be able to spend time together as a family. We all ate way too much good food.

As far as the stock market, 2018 was certainly a volatile year, we will have to wait and see what 2019 holds for investors and those looking toward retirement.

Hopefully you find many of the posts here at The Chicago Financial Planner useful and informative as you chart your financial course. Whether you do your own financial planning and investing, or you work with a financial advisor, my goal is to educate and provide some food for thought.

In the spirit of all the top 10 lists we see at this time of year, here are my top 10 most read posts during 2018:

Is a $100,000 Per Year Retirement Doable?
Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?
401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds
4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer
Life Insurance as a Retirement Savings Vehicle – A Good Idea?
4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing
7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire
Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?
Five Things to do During a Stock Market Correction
Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

 

This past year saw me expand my freelance financial writing business, while continuing to serve a number of long-time financial advisory clients. I wrote a number of pieces for various financial services firms and other financial advisors over the past year. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow my business into 2019 and beyond.

Thank you for your readership and support. Please let know what you think about any of the posts on the site (good or bad) and please let me know if there are topics that you would like to see covered in 2019. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have via the contact form.

I wish you and your families a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Concerned about stock market volatility? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

 

Charitable Giving and Tax Reform

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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December of 2017 marks the biggest overhaul in the tax code in many years. One area that will be impacted under tax reform is charitable giving.

While charitable contributions remain eligible as an itemized deduction under tax reform, the ability to actually deduct your contributions may have been impacted by some changes in in the rules. Here are some thoughts for this holiday season and throughout the year.

SALT Cap

SALT stands for state and local taxes. Tax reform capped the amount of these taxes that can be used as an itemized deduction at $10,000 for 2018 going forward. The two biggest SALT components for most people are their state income taxes and their property taxes. This will especially impact those people living in states with high income taxes and locations with high property values/property taxes. Many commentators say this was politically motivated since taxpayers in “blue states” seem to be disproportionately impacted, I’ll leave that to you the reader to decide.

Higher standard deduction

The other major change that may impact your ability to itemize deductions is the increase in the standard deduction. Starting in 2018, the standard deduction increases to $24,000 for those who are married filing jointly and $12,000 for single filers. This means that if your itemized deductions are less than these thresholds, you will be better off taking the standard deduction versus itemizing.

Note that these and most provisions under tax reform expire after the 2025 tax year, so we will see what the future holds for these and other provisions beyond that. 

Deductibility of charitable contributions under tax reform 

The deductibility of charitable contributions was not eliminated under tax reform, in fact it was expanded for some high-income taxpayers. The issue for many taxpayers is whether or not they can still itemize deductions with the changes to the standard deduction limits and the SALT cap discussed above.

For those whose situation might not allow them to itemize, here are some ways to make your charitable giving more tax-efficient.

Bunch contributions

Let’s say that you and your spouse file a joint return. In this example let’s say your mortgage interest is $10,000 for the year and your SALT taxes are capped at the $10,000 level. With other deductible expenses your itemized deductions would come to $21,500, leaving you $3,500 short of the $24,000 standard deduction threshold.

One option would be to bunch expenses that would qualify as itemized deductions into 2018 (or any appropriate year) to get over the $24,000 hurdle.

In the case of charitable contributions, you might consider making additional contributions in the current tax year to help your reach the threshold where you can itemize. If you normally would make contributions of $1,500 per year and can afford to do so, you might try to make 2-3 years’ worth of contributions to the organizations of your choice in the current year to get your deductions above the threshold.

Give appreciated securities or assets 

Using appreciated securities held in a taxable account to make charitable contributions has long been an excellent method to make charitable contributions. Stocks, mutual funds and ETFs that have appreciated in value are good gifts. Other types of appreciated assets can be used as well, such as art, collectibles and real estate. These types of assets will need to have an appraisal to determine their value as a gift, versus using the market value on the day of the gift for appreciated securities.

There are two potential benefits:

  • The value of the gift can be deducted as a charitable contribution for those who can itemize deductions.
  • There are no capital gains taxes that will be due on the contributed shares. If you were to sell the shares first and then contribute the cash, you would owe capital gains taxes on the amount of the realized gain on the sale.

This strategy can also be used as part of your overall portfolio rebalancing, it can be a tax-efficient way to rebalance your holdings.

Even for those who cannot itemize under the new rules, the benefit of not having to pay taxes on the capital gains can be a significant benefit.

If you have a security that has declined in value, you are generally better off selling it, realizing a loss on the sale and then contributing the cash.

If this is a route that is appropriate for you, be sure to contact the organization to ensure that they can accept gifts of appreciated securities or other types of assets.

Donor-advised funds 

A donor-advised fund is a fund that allows you to have your contributions to the fund professionally managed, offering the opportunity to make contributions to qualified charitable organizations over time. DAFs have been around for many years and are offered by such big-name financial services organizations like Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity among others.

After establishing your account, contributions to the DAF can be made via check, securities or other assets. The details may vary a bit from fund to fund.

The fund invests your contributions professionally, typically through a list of individual funds or several managed portfolios they might offer. The money grows, and contributions can be made over time to the organization(s) of your choosing, as long as they are qualified charities. Most DAFs have minimum initial and future contribution levels, as well as minimum donation levels.

DAFs fit well into the new tax environment in that they can accept appreciated securities and can be a great vehicle to bunch your contributions in order to be able to itemize in certain years. They also allow you to space out your charitable donations if your desire is to give a certain amount each year.

RMD – Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) 

For those who are age 70 ½ or older, you can direct some or all of your required minimum distribution (RMD) to a qualified charitable organization each year in what is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). The limit is $100,000 annually.

The QCD has been around for a number of years. The amount directed to the charity is not taxed. This is beneficial for many reasons, including keeping your income in a range that offers the lowest future Medicare costs.

The amount of the QCD does not qualify as a deductible charitable contribution. If you have charitable intentions, this can be a tax-efficient way to make charitable.

The Bottom Line 

Contributing to charity is a great thing to do for those of us who are able to do it. As a Jesuit priest told me back in my graduate school days at Marquette University, you might as well take any tax breaks possible when making donations. The ideas above can help make your contributions a bit more tax-efficient.

As with any tax or financial planning issue, be sure to consult with a qualified tax or financial professional to determine if these ideas make sense for your situation.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Photo via I’dPinThat!

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

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One of the best tax deductions for a small business owner is funding a retirement plan. Beyond any tax deduction you are saving for your own retirement.  As a fellow small business person, I know how hard you work.  You deserve a comfortable retirement. If you don’t plan for your own retirement who will? Two popular small business retirement plans are the SEP-IRA and Solo 401(k).

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits The maximum for 2018 is $55,000 and increases to $56,000 for 2019. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2018, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to the maximums are $55,000 and $61,000, respectively. For 2019 these limits increase to $56,000 and $62,000. Employer contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits A SEP-IRA only allows employer contributions. Employees can contribute to an IRA (Traditional, Roth, or Non-Deductible based upon their individual circumstances). $18,500 for 2018. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation.The limits for 2019 increase to  $19,000 and $25,000 respectively.
Eligibility Typically, employees must be allowed to participate if they are over age 21, earn at least $600 annually, and have worked for the same employer in at least three of the past five years. No age or income restrictions. Business owners, partners and spouses working in the business. Common-law employees are not eligible.

Note the Solo 401(k) is also referred to as an Individual 401(k).

  • While a SEP-IRA can be used with employees in reality this can become an expensive proposition as you will need to contribute the same percentage for your employees as you defer for yourself. I generally consider this a plan for the self-employed.
  • Both plans allow for contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year. Consult with your tax professional to determine when your employee contributions must be made. The Solo 401(k) plan must be established by the end of the calendar year.
  • The SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation. If your compensation is variable the amount that you can contribute year-to year will vary as well. Even if you have the cash to do so, your contribution will be limited by your income for a given year.
  • By contrast you can defer the lesser of $18,500 ($24,500 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2018 and $19,000/$25,000 for 2019 into a Solo 401(k) plus the profit sharing contribution. This might be the better alternative for those with plenty of cash and a variable income.
  • Loans are possible from Solo 401(k)s, but not with SEP-IRAs.
  • Roth feature is available for a Solo 401(k) if allowed by your plan document. There is no Roth feature for a SEP-IRA.
  • Both plans require minimal administrative work, though once the balance in your Solo 401(k) account tops $250,000, the level of annual government paperwork increases a bit.
  • Both plans can be opened at custodians such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others. For the Solo 401(k) you will generally use a prototype plan. If you want to contribute to a Roth account, for example, ensure that this is possible through the custodian you choose.
  • Investment options for both plans generally run the full gamut of typical investment options available at your custodian such as mutual funds, individual stocks, ETFs, bonds, closed-end funds, etc. There are some statutory restrictions so check with your custodian.

Both plans can offer a great way for you to save for retirement and to realize some tax savings in the process. Whether you go this route or with some other option I urge to start saving for your retirement today 

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit Flickr

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

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Today the stock market took another hit. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell over 799 points or about 3.1%. The S&P 500 lost over 3.2%. An inverted yield curve, often a precursor to a recession, continued concerns about a trade war with China and concerns about Apple’s future outlook all fueled investor concerns. On top of this the stock market is closed tomorrow due to a national day of mourning for former President Bush, making many investors fearful of being long on stocks going into this midweek closure. What should you do now? Here are 4 things to consider when the stock market drops.

4 Things to do When the Stock Market Drops

Breathe 

Cable news networks like CNBC have a field day during steep, sudden stock market corrections like we saw today. It’s easy to get caught up in all of this hype. Don’t let yourself be sucked in.

Step back, take a deep breath and relax.

Take stock of where you are 

Review your accounts and assess the extent of the damage that has been done. Depending upon how you are invested it may be minor or a bit more significant. Investors who are well-diversified have probably been hurt but not to the extent of those with a heavy allocation to equities and other volatile areas that have been hit.

Review your asset allocation 

Has your portfolio weathered this storm and the declines we saw earlier in the year as you would have expected? If so your allocation is likely appropriate. If not, then perhaps it is time to review your asset allocation and make some adjustments. Proper diversification is great way to reduce investment risk. This is a good time to rebalance your portfolio back to your target asset allocation if needed as well.

Go shopping 

Market declines can create buying opportunities. If you have some individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds on your “wish list” this is the time to start looking at them with an eye towards buying at some point. It is unrealistic to assume you will be able to buy at the very bottom so don’t worry about that.

Before making any investment be sure that it fits your strategy and your financial plan. Also make sure the investment is still a solid long-term holding and that it is not cheap for reasons other than general market conditions.

The Bottom Line 

Steep and sudden stock market declines can be unnerving. Don’t panic and don’t let yourself get caught up in all of the media hype. Stick to your plan, review your holdings and make some adjustments if needed. Nobody knows where the markets are headed but those who make investment decisions driven by fear usually regret it.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

6 Investment Expenses You Need to Understand

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Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce their investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.

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Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.

Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios

All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.

Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:

$574,349 with no investment cost

$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points

$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points

These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.

Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Value Index Adm (VVIAX) has an expense ratio of 0.05%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap value asset class is 1.03%. For the three years ending September 30, 2018 the fund ranked in the top 10% of all funds in the category; for the trailing five years it placed in the top 6% and for the trailing ten years it placed in the top 24% in terms of investment performance.

Sales loads and 12b-1 fees

Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.

Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.82% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.24% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.60%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for ten years until the funds convert to a no-load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.

12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.

401(k) expenses

For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.

Be sure to review the annual fee disclosures provided by your employer for your company’s plan for information on the plan’s expenses.

Financial advice fees

Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.

Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.

Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.

Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment.

Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.

Surrender charges

Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity, the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.

Taxes 

Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETFs for dividends and capital gains as well.

Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.

Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.

The Bottom Line

Fees and expenses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate an amount sufficient to achieve your financial goals. Investors need to understand all costs and expenses associated with their investments and take steps to minimize these costs.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

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